The idea of a gospel that is both unchanging and deeply personal, both the same for everyone and completely different for each of us, sounds perplexing, but it’s a solid theological concept.
The Greek word euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον) translates exactly to the words good news or good message. It was a term originally used in wartime. When a distant battle took place, runners would bring messages back to the city, letting them know what was happening on the front line. Those who brought good news from the war were called evangelists: those who bring good news. The good news that your city’s army was beating the enemy. The good news that your father, your uncle, your brother had survived and was headed home.
Over time, the word leaked into the secular world, and the Greeks would talk about the evangel of everyday experience. The good news that Dad got a raise. The good news that Mom’s health scare was just that, a scare. The good news that your neighbor had a new grandchild.
When the Bible writers referred to “the evangel of Jesus” (or, as it might appear in our English translations, “the gospel of Jesus”), anyone reading would have absolutely understood the word to mean “the good news of Jesus.”
Just to be clear, the English word gospel itself doesn’t appear in Scripture. That word is a Middle English word (and, as I like to tell my kids, “Middle English is, you know, what the hobbits spoke”). The word was godspel. To pronounce it correctly, just pretend you are Sean Connery and maybe put a few marbles in your mouth: “Gaawdshpiel.” God meaning “good,” and spel meaning “story.”
Gospel in its original, Middle English meaning was a great translation of euangelion, because it meant something very close to “good news.”
Over time, “gospel” slowly became a church-only word, but the fact remains that what the original Greek meant, what the Old English word meant, and what the modern word should mean is this: good news.
I don’t get nervous telling people good news. I get excited. I might get nervous about “the gospel” but not about good news.
We realize, of course, that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each wrote a “Gospel.” Each writer’s “good news” about Jesus and the coming Kingdom was slightly different from the others’ good news. There was enormous overlap in their good news, but there are some things, for instance, that John thought needed to be emphasized that no one else mentioned, and vice versa. There were things Matthew saw that Luke doesn’t mention. There were experiences related by Mark that John didn’t think worth including.
In 2 Timothy 2:8-9, Paul says his good news is “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David.”
I’ve never once shared Jesus’ ancestry as my own good news, but for Paul it was an essential part of the gospel. For Matthew, too! In fact, he starts his Gospel with that very thing. I wouldn’t suggest starting a conversation with, “Hey, do you know who Jesus’ great-great-great-great-grandpa was?” but I wouldn’t be mad if you wanted to try it, either.
Even Jesus (or maybe I should say especially Jesus) had a unique take on the good news. Matthew says in 4:23 that Jesus went from town to town preaching the good news—and then, in chapters 5-7, Matthew shares Jesus’ gospel presentation: the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine a gospel presentation from Jesus himself!
Here’s where I’m going with all of this: Each of us, as a follower of Jesus, has good news to share. There will, of course, be a lot of overlap in our stories because of the universal gospel. We all believe Jesus died and rose again for our sins. We all believe Jesus is God, sent to earth as a human because of God’s love for humanity.
But we also each have our own good news—intensely personal good news that has come about because of our relationship with Jesus and how he has interacted with us, our families, and our communities. We have good news that comes from our history with God.
Right now, I am going through a difficult time where one of my best friends is struggling with terminal cancer. It’s immensely painful for me, for her family, for my family, and for her many friends. I know that doesn’t sound like good news. But there have been these intense moments of peace—not months at a time, not even weeks at a time—just these moments where I feel God’s presence and I know my friend is going to be safe and well in God’s presence, whether that’s here with us (our preference) or in his heavenly Kingdom. So for me, today, this moment as I am typing, part of my good news is simply the presence of God that brings peace in the midst of deep pain, suffering, and grief. That’s just me sharing my experience: what I have seen and heard from God in the last few months.
Scripture has a word for this. Jesus said we are his witnesses (Luke 24:48). And not that we will be or should be or ought to be his witnesses. No, we are his witnesses. The Greek word for witness is martus (μάρτυς). It was a legal term, used in Greek courts. If we were to try to choose the perfect word to translate martus into English, we couldn’t choose a better word than witness.
Now, the word witness can be terrifying to us. We worry people will reject us. Or that we don’t have the right words to say. Or that people might be offended or think we’re saying that they’re wrong and we’re right. We worry the person we’re talking to might know more than us.
Once, when I preached at a church and said we would be talking about witnessing, people stood to leave. I called after them, “Hey! Come back! It’s okay—there’s no need to be afraid!” And that’s absolutely true. To do their job, a witness only has to be honest about what they have experienced. That’s it. They don’t have to be an expert. They don’t have to understand the law. They don’t need to study for years. A good witness does one thing: share the truth about what they have seen.
We see this often in Scripture, but my favorite description is in 1 John 1:1-3, where John says:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
To be a witness is not a complicated thing. It doesn’t require seminary degrees and Bible studies or books about evangelism (including this one!). It requires only that you share what you have seen and heard and experienced with Jesus. If we’re terrified of it, it’s only because we’ve forgotten that our job isn’t to convince people. It’s to tell them—in a way they can understand—what we have seen and heard and experienced.
So, what have you seen, what have you heard? What have you looked at and what have your hands touched? Where has God showed up when you didn’t have hope any longer? When has he surprised you? What did God do in your life this year . . . this month . . . this week? How has Christ changed you, your relationships, or your world for the better? What is your good news about Jesus? And are you ready to share that with others?